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Possible Complications

Table of Contents
  • Before Surgery
  • During Surgery
  • After Surgery

    Before Surgery

    Even before surgery, there can be complications of a herniated disc. The most serious complication from a herniated disc is the development of the cauda equina syndrome. This results when a very large fragment of disc material is ruptured into the spinal canal in the area where the nerves that control the bowels and bladder travel before they leave the spine. Pressure on these nerves can cause permanent damage to them. If this occurs, you may lose the ability to control your bowels and bladder. This is a serious problem. Fortunately, it is also rare. If your doctor suspects this is occurring, surgery could be recommended immediately to try to remove the pressure from the nerves.

    During Surgery

    Many complications can occur during surgery. There is always the risk of a complication due to the anesthesia used during any type of surgery. Some of the possible complications that can occur during the removal of a herniated disc include injury to the nerves and a dural tear.

    After Surgery

    Sometimes complications do not show up until after surgery. Some show up quickly, and some may take months to become evident.


    Any surgical operation has a small risk of infection. Infection can occur in the skin incision, inside the disc, or in the spinal canal around the nerves. If an infection occurs that involves the skin incision, you may only need antibiotics. If the infection involves the spinal canal or the disc area, a second operation may be required to drain the infection. Antibiotics will also be required after the second operation to treat the infection.


    There is always the chance (about 10-15 percent) that the same disc may herniate again. If a re-herniation occurs, usually it is during the first six weeks after surgery. But it can happen anytime and may require a second operation.

    Persistent Pain

    Sometimes a procedure doesn't completely eliminate the pain. Pain may persist for many reasons. The nerves may be damaged by the pressure from the disc herniation and not recover completely. Scar tissue may develop around the nerves weeks after the operation and cause pain similar to what you had before the operation.

    Degenerative Disc Disease

    Any injury to a disc can lead to degeneration of the spinal segment involved. A disc that has been operated on-and a portion removed-has definitely been injured. It is not certain that a patient will develop additional problems in the area where a disc has been removed, but there is an increased chance. A second operation might be needed if pain from the degenerative process becomes severe. It usually takes several years to develop degenerative disc disease.

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